Efficiency secrets from Shanghai Airlines

I am a fan of Chinese domestic air travel. The airplanes, Airbuses or Boeings, are new enough and safe-seeming, unlike the alarming Soviet-made castoffs we rode here in the mid-1980s. The attendants are chipper. It's hard to be sure, but the pilots seem fine. Every flight I’ve been on has offered a hot meal, and by U.S. airline standards the food is great. Buying tickets is easy – you can walk into the airport and pay in cash, or order online through a unique high-tech/low-tech process I’ll describe some other day.* Flights in China are usually late, but they’re late everywhere.

Most amazing of all, the airport experience itself – a phrase that makes you feel bad just hearing it in America – is as low-stress as it can be. Check-in lines move fast – OK, there’s no “line,” but once you get in the spirit you can fight your way up pretty quickly. Getting through security takes five or ten minutes tops.

There's one problematic exception, illustrated by this picture of the 900-person taxi queue, snaking back and forth like the line for U.S. security screening, earlier this evening at Shanghai's Hongqiao airport, but it is an exception, as explained below**:

What’s the trick with things (apart from Shanghai/Hongqiao taxis) moving as well as they do in China? I’m not sure, but this may help: Chinese airlines don’t encourage a lot of fussing around with “do these look like good seats?“ or “is there any space in the exit row?”*** My wife and I saw this in its pure form today when checking in for the five-plus hour flight from Urumqi back to Shanghai.

Our Boeing 737, from Shanghai Airlines, was about 2/3 full. On many airlines around the world that would mean: window and aisle seats occupied, middle seats empty. We were about the last ones to get on the plane – decided not to fight the “line” at the entry gate -- and when we boarded this is what we saw: every single seat in the last two-thirds of the plane occupied, and not a single passenger in the forward one-third of the plane. The people who’d checked in just before and after us had seats right next to us. Apparently the airline had assigned seats just the way you’d lay down bricks in building a wall. First person up, seat 29A in the last row on the plane. Next, number 29B. Then 29C, and when the 29s were done it was time for row 28. And so on, filling the plane up back to front, with none of this nonsense about “preferred seating.”

The part of my brain that had once worked out weight-and-balance calculations for small aircraft thought: this could make for one tail-heavy airplane!**** But I needn’t have worried. As soon as the door closed, people surged into the aisles and clambored past each other to new seats. The magic combination of imposed order and disobedient chaos that makes China tick.


* OK, I’ll describe it now. C-Trip is a popular online booking service that covers most of China’s airlines and is faster and easier to use that most US sites. You choose your flight, push “buy now” – and two hours later, a courier shows up at your house or office to hand you your ticket and collect the exact-change fare, in cash.

** I've never heard a good explanation for this, but at Shanghai Hongqiao -- the "in-town" counterpart to New York's LaGuardia or Chicago's Midway -- there are always many hundred, and sometimes well over 1,000, people in the queue for a taxi. It's not that way at Shanghai Pudong, the big new international airport (which also has MagLev service to downtown). It's not that way at Beijing's Capital Airport, or any others. A simple inefficiency? Some kind of deal with the legion of gypsy-cab operators who prowl the line saying: "Private taxi? No waiting!" One of many mysteries of the East.

*** We’ve learned not to bother asking for exit-row seats. Some airlines try to avoid having any passengers sit there; a Chinese pilot told me it was because they were afraid people would play around with the exit handles. Other airlines say they want native speakers of Mandarin in those seats. That policy makes more sense than the U.S. approach, with its warning cards saying, essentially: “If you can’t read this emergency card, please let us know.”

**** Weight-and-balance calculations show whether an airplane is too heavy to fly safely – and whether its center of gravity is within an “envelope” that is neither tail- nor nose-heavy. Neither is good, but being tail-heavy is a worse problem on take-off. Reasons in any “learn to fly” book.